Writing on Animal Skins

Aren’t we lucky that we can just pop paper in the printer or open a new notebook and begin writing away? It isn’t so terribly long since none of that was possible. Perhaps not in living memory but a little before that paper was an expensive item for the ordinary household and before that there was no paper available at all but that was okay because hardly anyone could write.

I suppose we are all aware of the medieval illuminated manuscripts crafted on vellum: gospels and books of hours, as devotional works were called. Classical texts from antiquity were recovered and were also copied, as were original works, religious and scientific. All of these had to be copied up by hand, mostly in monasteries though some scholars were famous for the quality of their handwriting. All this was done on parchment or vellum. Some say that vellum is processed from calfskin whereas parchment is made from goatskin or sheepskin. Others say the two names are interchangeable.

To make parchment you washed the animal skin, soaked it in lime solution, washed it again, stretched it out on a wooden frame, scraped off the hair with a hooked knife called a lunellum and cut it into rectangular sheets. Scribes kept a pumice stone to even out the gooseberried skin and perhaps a boar’s tooth to polish the surface so that the ink – made from oak gall – would adhere. They kept a different knife to scrape off any mistakes.

This may seem an arduous process but it is estimated that the English royal government alone produced thirty thousand documents a year by the 12th century. So far as I can remember I have never actually handled any parchment so I bought a small piece so that I would know what I was talking about (for a change!). It is a cream coloured oblong of a substance quite unlike anything else. The piece I have is goatskin and there are slightly darker areas where the animal was coloured. I expect that this would have been unacceptable for a monastery. The parchment scrap is stiff, thin and has a slightly dimpled appearance, probably the gooseberry effect mentioned earlier.

I didn’t want to sully my little piece of vellum with my scrawl so I asked my friend Hans, who is an immeasurably better writer than I am, to choose a quotation that he found appropriate and you see the result above. Hans said that writing on parchment was quite an experience; some parts were rough, others very smooth. The ink does not penetrate, rather it dries on the surface. He used walnut ink (which looks splendid!) and a John Mitchell 0661 nib. Who can say whether it would have been easier using a quill.

There’s more to say on this subject. Monks or scribes used materials that were produced in-house, as it were. No nipping out to buy a bottle of ink in those days (actually it isn’t easy now, either!). I may take this further in a future article but this is as far as my research has taken me.

Deep gratitude to Hans Gilliams.

2 thoughts on “Writing on Animal Skins

  1. Your friend Hans has a fine hand and writing on parchment for the first time producing such an elegant quote is something to see.

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